The sky is not the limit

Nowhere in the pages of history has a place transformed itself from an unknown town on the edge of the desert to an international hub for business and leisure travel as quickly as Dubai has. Fifty years ago the emirate was an empty patch of desert on the coast of the Arabian Gulf with little more of note than a small but busy port. Today, Dubai is a playground for the rich and famous in the Middle East, a thriving centre for conferences and expositions, a top destination for beach resort holidays, a skiing destination, a top venue for spa and health holidays, and a vibrant cosmopolitan city where a melting pot of cultures live harmoniously.

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By  Joseph Mortimer Published  July 10, 2006

|~|Emirates-fleet---large.gif|~|The speedy growth of Emirates and Dubai as a key destination for leisure and business travel have gone hand in hand; both have witnessed a speedy climb to fame, and there seems to be little in the way to slow them down.|~|Nowhere in the pages of history has a place transformed itself from an unknown town on the edge of the desert to an international hub for business and leisure travel as quickly as Dubai has. Fifty years ago the emirate was an empty patch of desert on the coast of the Arabian Gulf with little more of note than a small but busy port. Today, Dubai is a playground for the rich and famous in the Middle East, a thriving centre for conferences and expositions, a top destination for beach resort holidays, a skiing destination, a top venue for spa and health holidays, and a vibrant cosmopolitan city where a melting pot of cultures live harmoniously. In the first six months of 2005, Dubai International Airport recorded 11.84 million passenger movements, 13.7% higher than the same period in the previous year. Total arrivals for 2004 hit the 21.7 million mark, up 20.2% on 2003 (18.06 million). The rate of growth has now spiralled to dizzying levels, and the combination of a highly active tourism department, the world’s fastest growing airline, and good old-fashioned word of mouth have ensured that the lure of Dubai has reached markets worldwide. From towering buildings made of steel and glass, to traditional dhows that cruise up and down the Creek, Dubai now conjures up images as varied and diverse as its population. World class For the discerning tourist, Dubai is an essential component of any Middle Eastern itinerary. Its swift rise to fame has made it a must-see destination for the rich and powerful across the world. However, the recent increase in the number of mid-range hotels being built is making Dubai more accessible of late. “About 15 years ago we didn’t have enough hotels, and it was becoming a big problem,” says Mike Simon, divisional senior vice president, corporate communications, Emirates. “Here we are now in 2006 and we need more hotels again; it has come around full circle. In the time in-between, millions of tourists have been attracted to Dubai because of the great five-star hotels that sprung up during that period.” Simon, who joined Emirates in 1989, has played a major role in raising the profile of Emirates Airlines and has witnessed the dramatic changes that have taken place within the emirate over the last 15 years. “Before the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) was created, we were the only people really marketing Dubai, but now there are roadshows, festivals and campaigns to promote the destination across the world. Because of our global reach, we are still part and parcel of promoting Dubai,” he says. The founding of the DTCM in 1997 gave Emirates an invaluable ally in the battle to attract tourists and businesses, and the government of Dubai has been unrelenting in its initiatives to put the emirate at the centre of the world map. “Emirates is proud to be marketing Dubai to the world. The various enterprises speak for themselves; Ski Dubai, Dubailand and so on show the remarkable vision and risks taken by the government: these people really put their money where their mouth is,” says Simon. ||**|||~|Simon,-Mike--large.gif|~|Mike Simon: Emirates has played a fundamental role in the development of Dubai as a hub.|~|The speedy growth of both the airline and the emirate have gone hand in hand, and as the size and capacity of Dubai’s airport increases, so does the potential for the airline. “As long as there is a country in the world with an airport, there is potential for Emirates to fly there. Dubai is already a major hub for travel, but it will become a global hub before long,” adds Simon. Last year, Emirates recorded US $6.3 billion in revenue, of which $674 million was net profit. It carried 14.5 million passengers in the same period, 2 million more than in 2004, and between April 2005 and June 2006, the carrier launched nine new routes. Emirates currently flies to 84 destinations in 58 countries, and operates 93 aircraft. Summer Surprises Traditionally the hot summer months have driven people out of the Middle East to find refuge in more temperate European climates, but recent government initiatives such as Dubai Summer Surprises (DSS) are driving an increase in visitor numbers during the summer period. “You can’t spend all year on the beach because it gets too hot, but since the introduction of events like Dubai Summer Surprises, Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), Rugby Sevens, Dubai Desert Classic, the Dubai International Film Festival and other summer events, the government has attracted a new type of tourist to Dubai,” says Simon. This year DSS celebrates its ninth birthday and is offering family orientated events and promotions from June 21 to September 1. “With the vast amount of entertainment opportunities available during DSS for the entire family, many families choose to stay back during the summer,” says Laila Suhail, the executive project director, DSS. “Regionally, we get people from all over: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar, but visitors come from the Levant countries and some international destinations as well.” When DSS launched in 1998, the festival attracted 600,000 visitors to the emirate who spent a total of AED 850 million (US $231 million). In 2005, those figures soared to 1.5 million visitors, who spent an astronomical AED 1.72 billion ($468 million). Both DSS and DSF have actively participated in international trade events like ITB in Berlin, ATM in Dubai, MITT in Moscow, and Leisure2005 in Russia, in a bid to encourage international visitors to visit air-conditioned malls and join in the fun. The big push DTCM was founded in 1997, taking on the responsibility of the Dubai Commerce and Tourism Promotion Board (DCTPB), which had previously been dedicated to the international promotion of Dubai’s commerce and tourism interests. At the same time, DTCM took charge of overseeing development of tourism in the rapidly developing emirate. In 2005, the DTCM recorded a total of 5,294,485 hotel guests to Dubai. This compares to less than two million in 1996. Of the 5.3 million, 1.69 million were Arab nationals, 1.76 million were European, and more than one million guests visited from Asia. The importance of regional trade to the growth and continued prosperity of the emirate is of intrinsic importance to Dubai. Events like the Arabian Travel Market, which is hosted in Dubai, provide DTCM with the opportunity to invite travel trade professionals from the entire Middle East and beyond to remind them what Dubai has to offer and update them on any new developments. The DTCM recently led a delegation to the Asia-Pacific Incentive and Meetings Expo (AIME 2006) in Melbourne in a bid to encourage more traffic from Australia, which is one of the fastest growing markets for visitors to Dubai. “The UK is a very big market, as is Germany, but recently Australia is becoming an important market for us,” says Simon. “We started flying to Australia in 1996 and we now have 49 flights a week.” He also quotes Japan, China and West Africa as fast-growing source markets. Destination management Destination Management Companies (DMCs) have thrived as a result of Dubai’s exponential growth. They are constantly inundated with requests for ground handling arrangements for leisure and MICE guests in particular and as a result, have clout when it comes to ensuring adequate facilities are on offer. “We have been fairly instrumental with the development of the tourism infrastructure of Dubai,” says Frederic Bardin, vice president, Arabian Adventures and Congress Solutions Dubai. “We lobbied the government for a cruise terminal, and for more beach hotels and so on. “Dubai definitely has a big future ahead: we are tapping into new markets in countries where Dubai is well known, but not necessarily featured in the brochures yet.” Bardin says many people believe that if too many hotels open their doors, it will be difficult to fill them. “But the demand is already much greater than the supply,” he explains. “A few thousand rooms opening up here and there over the next few years will be swallowed up by the demand. We will not have a problem filling the hotels as long as there is a good balance between all categories. “I don’t see an end to the growth or a recipe for failure. If you don’t grow you die, but we happen to be the fastest growing city on the planet,” he adds. Business as usual The Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) has become an internationally renowned centre for conferences and exhibitions for some of the largest trade events globally, including GITEX and Arabian Travel Market, and in 2003 it hosted the annual meeting of the IMF. The growth in MICE travel has caused a surge in the number of corporate visitors coming to Dubai, where the facilities have quickly become available to accommodate groups of all sizes. “Dubai Convention Bureau (DCB) has been working to promote and market Dubai as an excellent MICE destination throughout the year,” claims Awadh Seghayer Al Ketbi, director, DTCM-DCB. “The MICE facilities in both the public and the private sector have been expanded to meet the growing needs of the global community. Dubai ‘s capabilities to host more meetings, conferences and conventions are set to enhance with many more ambitious projects becoming a reality in the near future,” he adds. The DWTC is currently undergoing its own expansion, with construction under way of a new exhibition hall that will increase the capacity of Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre (DICEC) by 30%. “Dubai’s Conference and Exhibition sector is undergoing massive growth and, as a result, demand for space is outstripping supply significantly,” says Helal Saeed Al Marri, director general, DTCM. “In 2005, shows at the DICEC grew in terms of exhibition space at levels ranging from 10% through to 73%, and we are looking to ensure that the facilities are available to support such growth rates.” Further developments include Dubai Exhibition City, which will form part of the Dubai World Central project, adding a further 120,000m² of exhibition space by 2009. Every clued-up hotel in Dubai that has undergone a refurbishment in the last five years has ensured that their business and conference facilities have received due attention, and where possible, expansion. Checking in dubai style Of the 5.3 million hotel guests that stayed in Dubai last year, nearly two million opted to stay in five-star properties, one million in four-star, and the remainder were distributed throughout the three-, two-, and one-star categories. The average length of stay in 2005 was 2.53 nights, although European and African visitors tended to stay longer than those from other regions. ||**|||~|The-Palm-Jumeirah---large.gif|~|Pioneering real estate developments like the Palm Jumeirah are setting a new benchmark for tourism projects worldwide. |~|Every major hotel brand worth its salt has already opened at least one property in Dubai, and many are in the process of building a fourth or fifth. Hyatt, The Ritz-Carlton, Rezidor SAS, Rotana, Starwood, InterContinental, Marriott, Millennium and Jumeirah are all household names in the emirate, and most have more than one property in the emirate. Rotana is currently undergoing rapid expansion, with four new hotels to be completed by 2008, to compliment the six existing Rotana properties in Dubai. Rotana pays travel agents 10% commission on bookings, but according to Wafa Bitar, marketing executive, Villa Rotana Suites, only 5% of bookings for the three existing Rotana Suite complexes come through travel agents. “Around 80% of bookings come through corporate clients and 15% from guests contacting us directly,” she explains. “Typically, around 30% of our guests come from within the GCC, 30% from the rest of the Middle East, and 15% from the UK, which is our biggest international market.” Rezidor SAS has three new hotels planned for Dubai, all of which should be open by 2009. There are also plans to extend the recently opened Radisson SAS Hotel, Dubai Media City. The Radisson SAS Palm Jumeirah will be a business hotel located on the trunk of the Palm, designed to cater exclusively to the MICE market, explains Craig Senior, regional director sales and marketing Middle East, Rezidor SAS. “There is a fairly large element of US business now coming to Dubai and we are seeing companies being set up out here,” he says. “And when the business travellers start coming, you often find that it’s not long before the leisure travellers come too, so there is a huge potential to develop tourism with the US.” The Hotel Missoni Palm Jumeirah Dubai will be the group’s second Missoni branded hotel in the Middle East, due to open on the crescent of the Palm in 2008/9. The hotel is being designed in conjunction with the Italian fashion house, to create a unique identity for the company at one of Dubai’s most sought after locations. “When Dubai became a hub for people to fly on to destinations in Asia, it exposed Dubai to people who had never been to the Middle East before,” says Senior. “Hotels started to spring up, like the Burj Al Arab, which is now the icon of Dubai, and it positioned Dubai on the world map, setting the benchmark for quality and design.” Room enough As the market has expanded, a new niche for mid-range hotels has evolved, paving the way for a new generation of three-star hotels catering to both leisure and business traveller needs. Wafi Group LLC opened the doors to The Arabian Park Hotel in May; its first owned and managed three-star business property, strategically located within a few minutes drive of the Dubai World Trade Centre, and not far from Dubai International Airport. “Not everyone wants to pay huge amounts of money for five-star hotels, when a three-star property can offer similar levels of quality at a lower rate,” says Mark Lee, general manager of Arabian Park Hotel. “We’re perfectly located for business travellers or MICE groups; just five minutes from the World Trade Centre and the central business district, and 10 minutes from Dubai International Airport.” At the end of 2005, there were 36 five-star hotels in Dubai, and a total of 290 operating hotels, but that number is set to dramatically rise over the next few years. Dubai Holdings’ Bawadi project will add 31 hotels to Dubai’s current inventory in the next eight years, providing a total of 29,200 hotel rooms. Within the $27.2 billion project, the vast Asia Asia Hotel will single-handedly supply 6500 rooms. In other major developments, Emirates Hotels and Resorts unveiled the 77-storey twin tower Emirates Park Towers Hotel and Spa at ATM earlier this year, and Minor International announced the introduction of the Anantara brand to Dubai, with a five-star resort on the Palm Jumeirah Dubai, and a business hotel at Jumeirah Lake. As well as the 30,000 rooms to be built in the Bawadi project, Dubailand is expected to provide a further 25,000 rooms, and another 25,000 will be build in other developments around the Dubai. So will Dubai reach saturation point soon? Emirates’ Mike Simon thinks not. “I see the airline becoming bigger and bigger and I see Dubai becoming even more important as a tourist destination, as a commercial centre, and a place to come for incentives, meetings and conventions,” he says. “There is nothing to stop this airline and indeed Dubai itself from continuing to expand; we could go on indefinitely.” ||**||BOXOUT|~||~||~|GETTING THERE Dubai International Airport is located just minutes away from the central business districts of Deira and Bur Dubai. Emirates: from Muscat, twice daily; from Amman, nine flights weekly; from Bahrain, twice daily; from Beirut, 13 flights weekly; from Cairo, twice weekly, from Damascus, daily; from Doha, 48 times weekly; from Jeddah and Riyadh, six flights weekly; from Kuwait, 23; from Tehran, 19 flights weekly. GETTING AROUND: The traffic in Dubai is notoriously bad, but there are several transport options from which to choose that cater to all budgets Taxi: There are several reliable taxi companies in Dubai, which provide an economical but comfortable way of getting around the emirate. Choose a clearly marked taxi and make sure it has a metre to avoid scams. Bus: for the more adventurous visitor, an extensive bus network serves all the major areas of interest within Dubai. Bus travel is slow, but very cheap, and often a good way of seeing the city from the perspective of its inhabitants. Limousine: numerous limousine companies boast vehicles to suit groups of up to 18 individuals, with facilities on board to make the most tedious journey a holiday in itself. Looking ahead: the Dubai light railway will serve Dubai with an extensive rail network providing speedy and efficient travel when it is completed. The first phase is scheduled to be open in 2009. WHERE TO STAY: Take your pick: Dubai has a full range of three-, four- and five-star properties, as well as apartments and suites available for short- or long-term stays. The number of hotel rooms is expected to soar over the next five years as huge projects like The Palm Jumeirah near completion. Demand is high so advanced bookings are essential. MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS: Dubai World Central: A 140km² airport city, 40km from the existing airport will look after Dubai’s passenger and cargo needs until 2050. Al Bawadi: the $27.2 billion development will include the 6500-room Asia Asia Hotel, and 30 other hotels, set to provide 29,200 new hotel rooms by the completion of the project in 2016. The Palms: Nakheel’s Palm projects in Jumeira, Deira and Jebel Ali have reshaped Dubai, both geographically, and in terms of its position as an international tourism destination. Dubailand: an enormous theme park cum city development that will add another 25,000 rooms to Dubai’s inventory. 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